By now most Manchester United fans have pitched their tent in one of two camps when it comes to Shinji Kagawa.
There are the ‘#FreeShinji’ (first campaigned by Borussia Dortmund fans who miss him like a long-lost brother) supporters who believe he should be allowed to leave Old Trafford from the torment and return home to Dortmund’s Westfalstadion, and then there are the ones who, like myself, think he still has something great to offer at Old Trafford.
However we all agree that the boy has an immense and unique talent. It’s no secret that he gravitates toward the No.10 role with his guile, magnetic first touch, keen eye for that killer ball and the ability to operate rapidly in the most slender of spaces. He’s the octopus of footballers, obviously? Maybe he can even regenerate a severed limb, who knows?
The problem is that he faces stiff competition for that role in the form of the talismanic Wayne Rooney, the exceptional Juan Mata and now too the prodigious Adnan Januzaj, who can play right across the front line with an unnerving natural ease.
Kagawa is not a striker. He is not a winger and he certainly isn’t a defender, but maybe there is optimism for him in a central-roaming role for Manchester United. Japan have deployed him in this fashion on several occasions whilst on international duty and he hasn’t looked out of place. In fact, he has often ran the game and conceived the majority of Japan’s fluid waves of attacks.
Toward the end of the 2013/14 season, David Moyes also deployed him in a central-roaming role vs. both Newcastle and Hull City at home which were won 4-0 and 3-1 respectively. I use the term central-roaming, as he wasn’t playing as a typical centre-midfielder, neither in a dedicated holding or attacking role.
Against Newcastle, Kagawa was allowed to drift in between the lines and collect the ball from over over the park (as can be seen in his heat-map below, courtesy of Squawka.com).
His ability to create that extra yard of space for himself from the opposition is reminiscent of Paul Scholes and how it always seemed like he had a relative eternity on the ball to craft his next move.
Louis van Gaal also used in him in central positions in his first appearances on tour and while he didn’t have the best of performances there in comparison to when he was used as a No.10 by the Dutchman, it showed that he was considering the option.
Kagawa isn’t much of a tackler but then again neither was Scholes, although he liked to think he was, but Kagawa reads the story of the game exceptionally well and that helps when he is required to break up play. He made double the amount of interceptions this season as Juan Mata (18 to 9), although Mata played three games fewer.
Granted, 18 interceptions all season is nothing to write home about, but it’s respectable considering that in the majority of his 18 appearances this season were on either the left wing or in the No. 10 role.
One other very telling statistic from last season is that Kagawa’s average pass length was 14.5m (and 13.3m in the 2012/13 season). That’s 2m shorter than even Xavi’s average of 16.5 for Barcelona, orchestrating their relentless tiki-taka, short and quick passing brand of obsessive possession football. What that tells us, along with his impressive passing accuracy, is that when he operates in other players’ zones (sorry Robin) he isn’t getting in their way. He’s acting as the well-oiled fulcrum and is often helping the ball on its way or neatly deflecting it around tight corners with deadly precision.
I believe this is crucial for a roaming role such as the one Kagawa has shown these glimpses of exciting promise in. It’s one thing running around from all corners of the pitch like a possessed, one-man army, but quite another to make it work in such a way that every other player can do their job just as effectively as before.
It’s worth noting that while Scholes had the muscle and leadership of Roy Keane beside him for the majority of his career, Kagawa does not have that luxury yet and this will need to be rectified in the summer transfer market. The role worked very well against lethargic Newcastle and Hull sides but there will be much greater tests to come throughout next season.
Kagawa will need brawn to complement his brain and then just maybe it’ll be time to #FreeShinji after all – to unscrew the lid and coax this octopus from its ‘No.10’ labelled jar.